'I've left cycling – losing to a trans rider hurts on a million different levels'

Hannah Arensman portrait - Jack Robert for The Telegraph
Hannah Arensman portrait - Jack Robert for The Telegraph

Hannah Arensman radiates a love for her sport too pure to be feigned or contrived. As the fourth of nine children, growing up in Morganton, North Carolina, she gravitated towards cycling as an outlet for her irrepressible energy. “I’ve never been able to sit still,” she reflects. “I had a ball doing cyclocross in particular, a wonderful world where road and mountain bike collide. I loved being in shape, I loved going fast, I loved mastering a technical section. It’s like playing an instrument. When you hit it right, it’s just gorgeous.”

It was a passion she channelled with distinction, wearing the colours of her country, winning national medals, even nurturing a dream of representing the United States at next summer’s Paris Olympics. And yet last December, at the age of 24, she simply walked away. The immediate trigger for that decision was not injury or dwindling form, but the fact that in her final race, at the US cyclocross championships in Connecticut, she lost out on a podium place to a biological male. “There are,” she says, “a million different levels where it hurts.”

Arensman was fourth on that Hartford winter’s day, two seconds adrift of Austin Killips, who this month sparked a global furore by becoming the first transgender cyclist to win a globally-sanctioned stage race, at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. She had reasons for believing it had not been a fair fight, given that Killips carried all the residual benefits of male puberty – larger bones, stronger muscles, longer levers, greater lung capacity – and only took up the sport in 2019 after embarking on hormone therapy, writing a blog about the transition process under the name “Oestro Junkie”.

Belgian Marion Norbert Riberolle, Dutch Denise Betsema and American Austin Killips pictured on the podium after the women's elite race of the 'Kasteelcross' cyclocross cycling event, race 7/8 in the 'Exact Cross' competition, Saturday 21 January 2023 in Zonnebeke - Getty Images/David Pintens
Belgian Marion Norbert Riberolle, Dutch Denise Betsema and American Austin Killips pictured on the podium after the women's elite race of the 'Kasteelcross' cyclocross cycling event, race 7/8 in the 'Exact Cross' competition, Saturday 21 January 2023 in Zonnebeke - Getty Images/David Pintens

And so today, she is finally speaking out, too scalded by the sense of injustice to choose the path of least resistance. It is a move of considerable courage, given the febrile climate in which sport’s trans debate is conducted. The fear of being denounced as transphobic is so acute that at the elite level, no active female athletes dare put their names to their disquiet over fairness. Only last week, Inga Thompson, a retired three-time US Olympian, found herself accused by cycling team Cynisca of “affecting its brand and reputation” for opposing the presence of post-puberty males in female sport.

But Arensman is breaking the omerta, conscious that the fight is no longer hers alone and that, ultimately, the sanctity and integrity of the female category are at stake. “I realised that if an opportunity presented itself to say something on behalf of other women, then I would take it,” she says. “This has gone on long enough, it has gone far enough. It should never have reached this point, it should never have been allowed. Someone has to take responsibility. This is not fair sport, and the governing bodies, who should have made the rules at the beginning, need to realise it. The very people who should be protecting our sport are not doing so.”

Her first inkling of the gathering storm came last year, when Killips, previously unknown in a cyclocross world where most riders start as children, began winning against national fields despite glaring flaws in technique. “Killips doesn’t really have a lot of skill, but stayed with us because of strength,” Arensman argues.

“Here was somebody who wouldn’t keep up very well with the elite guys, but who was doing fine keeping up with the elite women. It was dispiriting, knowing that Killips was taking hormones to suppress testosterone. Every woman in these races has trained so hard to be there. There aren’t very many of us. Yes, it’s exciting to receive payouts equal to the men’s, to see the women’s numbers grow. But then to have a biological male jump in and start taking our records? There’s no fairness to it.”

'There's a clear, unfair advantage'

At times, the fury would consume her. “I had no desire to be anywhere near Killips,” she admits. “It became more and more difficult for me to hang around at the finish line to congratulate my rivals, because Killips would be there, parading around in front of the cameras. It was sickening. What are you celebrating? You just beat women, and there’s a clear unfair advantage.”

The scientific evidence supports her assertion. As it stands, the policy of the International Cycling Union is that biological males can race as women so long as they prove they have reduced their testosterone serum levels below 2.5 nanomoles per litre over a two-year period. The average testosterone level for women is between 0.5 and 2.4 nmol/l, while the British Journal of Sports Medicine has indicated that trans-identifying men maintain superior heart and lung function to women, even after 14 years on hormone treatment.

'We helped her find the door. She won’t be missed'

The angrier Arensman grew, the more threats there were for her to acquiesce. On Dec 11, the day of what would be her last race, members of the John Brown Gun Club (a Left-leaning group that claims guns are a necessary protection against armed Right-wingers) mobilised at the course, holding up transgender pride flags and wearing balaclavas to conceal their identities. “Sounds like a weird thing for gun clubs to do,” the Connecticut chapter tweeted, “until you realise there’s a massive TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] problem in cycling.” The same extremists later celebrated Arensman’s retirement, writing: “Hope we helped her find the door. She won’t be missed.”

Reminded of the intimidation, Arensman can only despair of the toxic backlash that any attempt to discuss the transgender controversy attracts. “It just adds to the complete disrespect,” she says. “When you have to use physical violence to keep other people in check, so you can do whatever you want, there’s something seriously wrong. It’s a form of tyranny.”

Her farewell event turned out to be one she would rather forget. It was not just that Killips deprived her of a national medal, but that some dubious tactics were deployed en route. In one video, Killips can be seen appearing to throw himself into Arensman, knocking her off balance. While Killips has rejected this characterisation, Arensman would later highlight the incident in a filing to the Supreme Court, referring to “several physical interactions”.

Her testimony was withering. “It has become increasingly discouraging to lose to a man with an androgenised body that intrinsically gives him an obvious advantage over me, no matter how hard I train,” she wrote. “I have felt deeply angered, disappointed, overlooked, and humiliated.”

Hannah Arensman in Morganton - Jack Robert for The Telegraph
Hannah Arensman in Morganton - Jack Robert for The Telegraph

“I fully expect that in cycling, as a full-body contact sport, you’re going to get hit at some point,” she says. “But when you have someone born a man run into you, over 6ft tall, it’s quite different. I tried to keep racing, not to let it get into my head at all. That one instance caught on video felt unnecessary, though. At best, it was a complete lack of handling skills. Women who have been doing this for 15 or 20 years have built up lots of technical ability. But there’s only a certain point we can get to with our muscles. Beyond that, we can’t compete.”

She would finish the race sandwiched between two transgender riders, with Killips third and Jenna Lingwood, who entered men’s races as “Jimmy” as recently as 2018, fifth. Her sister Allison, also a highly accomplished cyclist who competed internationally, wept as she watched, convinced Hannah had been cheated. “For my family, it ripped them to pieces,” she says. “I know there are so many women torn up about this, but they’re afraid to say anything for fear of losing sponsors, of being beaten down on social media, the main platform for gaining sponsorship in the first place. So they won’t say anything, even though they’re infuriated.”

'I don’t believe you should sacrifice sport'

By degrees, the atmosphere is changing. Last month, Bud Light ran a promotion with Dylan Mulvaney, the Californian transgender influencer with 10.8 million TikTok followers, who had been praised by President Biden at the White House. The company produced cans of beer branded with Mulvaney’s face, while emphasising the activist’s “365 days of girlhood”. Public backlash was ferocious, with sales of Bud Light falling 23 per cent the following week. The response offered a stark lesson to Nike, who, in trying to trumpet its inclusive credentials, has paid Mulvaney to advertise its sports bras, prompting former British Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies to call for a boycott.

“The transgender community is very loud,” Arensman says. “But I don’t believe you should sacrifice sport, against the wishes of the majority, for the minority. That’s not how it works.” Indeed, a bewildering feature of sport’s endless soul-searching on the trans issue is that for all the terror among athletes in putting their heads above the parapet, an unease about biological men taking trophies and prize money from women aligns with majority opinion. When Marion Clignet, the French champion road racer, tried to put pressure on the UCI to toughen its transgender stance last year, she presented a survey in which 92 per cent of female cyclists agreed with her.

A Bud Light ad campaign featured transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney - Instagram/Dylan Mulvaney
A Bud Light ad campaign featured transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney - Instagram/Dylan Mulvaney

Trying to disentangle the contradiction, Arensman explains: “We have a culture right now where, if you say or do something that is against the status quo, where most of the loud people are, you just get hammered, verbally or even physically.” She alludes to the case of Riley Gaines, who swam last year against Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer who was ranked 554th in the US as a male but who went on to win a national collegiate title in the women’s 200-yard freestyle. Gaines has described harbouring a searing bitterness about Thomas’ involvement, but when she turned up to talk about this at San Francisco State University last month, she was accosted by protestors shouting “trans rights are human rights”, before being led off campus by security.

“When I look at that, I can see why people are scared,” Arensman says. “There’s supposed to be a protected speech area, and she’s actually getting attacked.”

This de-platforming of those whom trans lobbyists call “gender-critical feminists” is far from an exclusively American phenomenon. Oxford University is currently engulfed in a row over the decision by the Oxford Union to invite academic Kathleen Stock to speak. Ms Stock, who has dubbed gender fluidity a “social contagion”, is due to talk at the debating society on May 30, but students have tried to cancel her appearance. Little wonder that young women observing such scenes question if it is worth all the strife to express an opinion.

Arensman, though, refuses to be muzzled. “Now that I’ve retired, people don’t really have anything that they can pull me back on and say, ‘If you want to keep racing, you had better shut up.” No. I’m done with the sport. I’ve been a cyclist for 12 years, and that’s that. Now I can freely say stuff that has needed to be said for a while.

“I have a little sister, just 13 years old. With your younger siblings, you feel like you’re in some way responsible, to make sure that they’re protected. And I would hate to see her in a sport where she’s trying to compete against guys in her own field. It’s not right. In my last season, I was happiest at those races where I was racing against girls. I thought, ‘This is like old times. I’m racing with people who are biologically like me.’ I know that I could put my absolute effort down, and wherever the chips landed, it would be true. I feel bad for the next generation of girls who are growing up. We need fair competition. It’s so important for learning about perseverance, for learning how to push ourselves, rather than taking the easy road.”

'Bigger hearts, bigger lungs, bigger everything'

The urgency of these arguments is intensifying across sport. Last week, Telegraph Sport revealed the case of Sarah Gibson, a transgender rower who had taken the place of a biological woman in the Cambridge reserve crew at the 2015 Boat Race. British Rowing has given its 31,000 members a vote on whether to restrict the women’s category solely to those born female, with a board meeting to ratify the decision due next week. In cycling, the assurances are vaguer, with the UCI committing only to re-examine the debate in August.

But the problems show little sign of receding. Emily Bridges, a Welsh transgender cyclist who broke a junior time trial record as a male, had hoped to line up in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last summer, only a year after initiating therapy to reduce testosterone levels. In the end, the UCI declined to grant a switch in licence from male to female, but Bridges has refused to abandon hope of being accepted in the sport as a woman. Similarly, Killips, Arensman’s old nemesis, is improving at such a rapid rate as to be tipped for a place at the Olympics. Such outcomes would, in Arensman’s view, be profoundly improper.

“A guy, even if mediocre in the men’s field, is more than capable of breaking records and making podiums in women’s races,” she says. “It’s why we have the division of the men’s and women’s categories. Our bodies are very different. One is biologically stronger than the other. Even if you try to stunt that growth, [a man's] body has already undergone those changes once [he's] past puberty. They’re permanent.

“It is really demoralising to women to hear someone say, ‘If I dilute my body by this much, then I can compete against you.’ No one wants to compete in that situation. How many people want to race against somebody who says, ‘Oh, I was holding back the whole time, so that you felt good about yourself’? When I race, I want to know that I’m going my absolute hardest, that you’re going your hardest, that we’re on a level playing field. We can go home and say, ‘OK, today you had better legs than I did.’ A guy against a girl? It’s not the same.”

Such has been the heartache of Arensman’s final act in cycling, it is apt to ask whether it has poisoned her perception of the sport she once regarded as a “gorgeous” escape. “No, I’ll always love it,” she says. “The reason I say anything about it is that I’d love other people to experience it, too. There’s a joy to being in nature, to pushing yourself to the limit, to congratulating after they beat you, saying, ‘Next time, I’ll have your hide.’”

While her career ended in a manner she could never have envisaged, Arensman is optimistic that a wider shift in cultural attitudes is under way. There is growing recognition, she says, that the trans rights campaign should not automatically confer the right for biological men to move across to women’s sport on a whim. “I hope that more of the silent majority start finding their voices to say, ‘Actually, this is wrong.’ Even if it leads to a putdown, or a loss of privilege in some way, at least it means that the next generation will have a level playing field.”

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